Before I left Chicago for Minnesota I had a cat.

A petite black cat named Henry, after my grandfather. This morning, a Henry lookalike darted in the front door at the guest house of Sam and Carol Dillahunty. Tom had left the door ajar while going out to get coffee from the van, and the Henry doppelgänger made himself right at home, clawing at every surface, ultimately trying to sneak a slumber on the master bedroom bed as we locked up! We quickly realized the cat was not outside, and sussed him out inside—Tom had to grab him by the scruff of the neck, hoping he wouldn’t claw back, and luckily he came willingly. Even after being thrown back outside, I think he was still ready for his nap though.

Tom and I drove back into Hughes, Arkansas to meet Ginger Coates, Bob Pouncey, Vaughn McCollum and several others at the Hughes Drive In, where the owner Lorin Hornbeak was expecting us around 8am. We were somehow meeting up with a group of people who felt like old friends. We’ve enjoyed breakfast, lunch and dinner with these folks since noon yesterday—and shared a lot of stories along the way. But our journey through west Arkansas must continue. Marianna, Arkansas is calling . . .

Tom and I had just made the exchange at a gravel road approaching Marianna, and as I set out on foot into town, a white car flashing blue lights approached with its window rolled down. Oh no! I’m getting pulled over! …well, something like that.

In fact, Mayor Jimmy Williams was behind the wheel offering an escort into town. He pulled up a bit further to corral Tom as well, and then the three of us made our way down the highway, with other squad cars blocking intersections along the way. It was quite the parade, and I turned in maybe my best 5K time of the trip as I chased the mayor’s car the whole way!

The heat of the day was mounting and I was glad to arrive at the gazebo in the town square, greeted by a large group of people from the community. The Mayor gave us an official welcome to the group and I said a few words and answered a few questions before shuttling off to lunch at award-winning Jones BBQ Diner.

Now it was already past noon when we arrived at Jones, and third generation owner James Jones had sold out as usual by 10:30am! But thankfully, lunching with the mayor has some advantages, and James had held some of his famous BBQ back just for us… all seven of us got a classic pulled pork sandwich on white bread with coleslaw inside. Delicious. While we sat in the small dining area—two tables and an array of frames memorabilia including the James Beard Medal on the walls—eating our sandwiches, munching on our Lay’s potato chips, and Ms. Pat drinking her Grape Crush, several people came knocking and even clamoring at the locked door. The closed sign was in the window, though, so no one opened the door or even said a word to alert them. They’d figure it out, or rather, they should know better—he’s always sold out this late in the day. A side note, here, is you better get your Jones BBQ fix soon because James’ son says he’s not following in his father’s footsteps and taking over the family business. The fate of Jones BBQ, recipe and establishment, is unknown(!).

As we drove away from Jones, a woman darted out from the side of the road with a tin of cookies in hand. Anne McClendon Had heard we were coming to town and wanted to show some southern hospitality—sugar and chocolate chip, no peanut butter cookies because you know, some people are allergic. So thoughtful! “Leave the tin at the house,” she shouted as we drove off… and we thought to ourselves, are we supposed to eat them all in one night?! Thank goodness for ziplocks!

Pat and Natalie from the Mississippi River State Park took us out to our house for the night where we all enjoyed a cookie and briefly unpacked a few things. From there we followed Pat back downtown to meet up with Nancy Apple at the used clothing store she runs. Nancy was born and raised in Marianna, but moved away for college, attending the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and stayed away for 15 years, living and working in Dallas with a career in marketing. Her life there was all work, and as a single young woman living with a group of other girls, she started to hanker for home. After a visit to her hometown of Marianna on one occasion, an old friend also single suggested they get married, so they did and she moved back! The marriage only lasted three months, but the move has lasted a lifetime. Nancy is now a fixture of the Marianna community, invested in several efforts to encourage growth, healing, and connection.

Nancy acknowledges she is fortunate to be able to do this work in Marianna, leaving her paying job behind, because her family owns farmland that they rent out. She gets a portion of that income and “doesn’t have to worry about the price of beans.” She’s been involved in the renovation of several downtown buildings through grant writing and community support—seven buildings so far since the year 2000. She’s worked with an elderly woman who serves as a longtime, local benefactor putting money into beautification, especially trees and street planters. There were a few missteps with trees in the past—especially the crabapples, but the new Chinese pistachios seem to be doing okay.

According to Nancy, soy and cotton prices aren’t good and the town economy runs on agricultural profits. The farmers are the towns major benefactors, and if they don’t have money, no one does. Other industries are not fairing well either in Marianna—not one manufacturing job is left. They’ve lost all of them. Despite the reclaiming of buildings downtown, lots of abandoned properties remain throughout the city. The major employer around here is the school district, she said. Some people commute 45 minutes to Memphis for work.

As the population of the community shrinks, so do the school populations. The school system in Marianna was just taken over by the State of Arkansas due to academic and financial distress. Pat and Nancy think that’s a good thing. From what we have seen, the fate of a community’s schools is forever tied to its overall welfare, so we hope they are right.

Why do they make this place home? Nancy likes the small town atmosphere. For every challenge that presents itself, there’s a real chance to make a difference. People around here are helpful to anyone in need. I ask in response, does that cross racial lines? Pat thinks it does. She says that the African American community—they are taking some responsibility, they are now pitching in. What would Pat and Nancy change? These two community volunteers would bring in jobs to grow the community, rather than have it continue in its shrinking decline. Nancy says she sometimes thinks of an archeological dig in the future where they find the remains of Marianna—a fate she is working against.

As we walked out of the store, saying our goodbyes to Nancy, someone was piling up bags of clothes on her doorstep—a regular occurrence she says. Sometimes the piles of clothes are so high and so deep she has a hard time getting to the door to unlock and open it! While we didn’t have time to do any shopping, we would meet up with Nancy again later and learn more about her life today in Marianna, nursing baby cows in her back yard, more of a farmer than she let on… But now we had to move on down the road to meet up with Claude Kennedy, Director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and Lon Mann Cotton Research Station supported through the University of Arkansas.

Claude has been involved in farming and the agriculture business all his life. His dad owned land in the Arkansas Delta and farmed it, then Claude farmed that same land until 1987. Claude’s mother was a teacher, though, and strongly encouraged him to get an education, go to college. So while his father would have rathered him stay and work on the farm, Claude went on to college in Memphis, studying agronomy. His experience in the classroom and in the fields gave him the opportunity to work in Washington, DC for the USDA, serving as the area director for several South Eastern states. His focus there was on workplace Equal Employment Opportunity within government based agricultural jobs. He worked on programs (allotments, insurances, assistances, conservation programs), and they established offices in each county for farmers to sign up. This work involved lots of travel and work with state committees.

Wondering if any of this EEO work within the government trickled down into the fields, we asked about how farm laborers are paid, do they get health insurance? Pat didn’t know how the men were paid. Claude said that the laborers “are like family, dependable”. Apparently it is up to the farm “family”—the land owner perhaps—to take care of the laborers, and it is understood that they will, eliminating the need for regulations or a union.

Average farms are about 3000 acres and up, said Claude. Some sweet potatoes are being grown locally—migrant workers were seen harvesting them. They work a circuit—contracted for seasonal work, making $15-20 per hour. There are even South African workers who come and are given a place to live seasonally. Claude says you can’t get local folks to do some farm labor jobs—government assistance and selling drugs are more lucrative to some local folks. “We don’t have young people like we used to have… No more farm families. Public housing is more common… We need programs that teach girls to sew and cook and boys to use hand tools… Those skills are not learned any more.” Claude says that the new young workforce “don’t know the basics”—can’t mow a lawn, trim hedges, etc. Even the young researchers who come in to the Station, he has to train them in these basics despite them knowing all the high tech skills.

What Claude would change about his community? He says people need to be more responsible environmentally, take care of things. He’s worried about “drift”—the chemicals coming off certain fields. People can’t have gardens anymore because of drift. Why would industry sell something like that, he wonders?

Our understanding of cotton was just beginning with this conversation with Claude Kennedy. While we thought our day was over, Pat had another interaction in store for us. She took us over to the McClendon, Mann, & Felton Gin and Warehouse facilities to see how cotton is stored and shipped as well as processed and baled. Trent Felton met us at the cotton warehouse where the compressed bales were being stored and shipments being put together for delivery by truck. There is a very elaborate system for tracking the cotton from the field to the purchaser.

The warehouser and/or gin doesn’t ever own the cotton. They just process it and prepare it for delivery. We drove to the cotton gin, a large noisy building primarily staffed by seasonal Hispanic workers. Cotton production starts at harvest and continues for several months. We’re just getting into the heavy production season. The seeds and lint are separated and every bit of the cotton is used.

From there we drove to the Mississippi River State Park which is housed inside the St. Francis National Forest, the only state and national partnership of its kind. The drive there took us through the rolling hills of Crowley’s Ridge, and once there we met up with Natalie again for a quick tour of this amazing facility built into the landscape. We had to hurry away, though, to prep for the performance later that evening, so the visit was brief. At the gazebo when the sun was just setting, a small crowd assembled to hear and share stories—many of the same folks who greeted us earlier that day.

A group of us went over to the Mexican restaurant for dinner. The mayor greeted just about everyone in the restaurant, and Nancy and her significant other Danny joined us. Pat had made an incredible German Chocolate Birthday Cake for me and everyone sang Happy Birthday (again!).